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23.10.13

Review Round-Up: 'Two Boys'



I was in New York this weekend to see Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Metropolitan Opera but could not stay for opening night of the company's new production of Nico Muhly's recent opera Two Boys on Monday night. It is a ripped-from-the-headlines kind of story, with a libretto by Craig Lucas on a 2001 story involving a teenager who used an Internet chatroom to manipulate another teenager into nearly killing him. The reviews are in, and many are as negative as the London reviews of the world premiere in 2011 (including by some very thoughtful people), or worse -- to my surprise, given how kindly disposed to Muhly most of these critics are. Possibly related -- the opera has been excluded from the Met's cinema broadcast series.

Anthony Tommasini, Connections in an Amorphous World (New York Times, October 22)

Mr. Muhly, just 32, is the youngest composer the Met has ever commissioned. Before “Two Boys,” during the James Levine era of more than 40 years, there had been only five commissioned operas at the Met. Mr. Muhly’s work originated as part of the company’s troubled commissioning partnership with Lincoln Center Theater, begun in 2006. It is the first from that program to be produced. So there has been inordinate pressure on “Two Boys” to be a success. [...] I wish I could say that “Two Boys” is that longed-for success. [...] But having a compositional voice is not enough in the elusive form of musical drama that is opera. The score does not sufficiently penetrate the complex emotions and shocking interactions between the characters in this story, set in 2001. Mr. Muhly excels at conveying the obsessive world of Internet chat rooms, a bazaar of masked identities, sexual yearning and fantasies. Several gripping choral episodes depict a frenetic multiplicity of young people mesmerized by their laptops as they communicate. The choristers sing multilayered babble: catchphrases of conversation in chat lingo; sputtering repetitions of “u there u there” delivered like mumbled mantras; collages of muttered phone numbers.
Martin Bernheimer, An impeccable cast sang as if a masterpiece were at hand – but Nico Muhly’s opera is simply silly (Financial Times, October 22)
Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, which had its US premiere on Monday, is morbid, sordid and foolish. The Met managed to look full for this would-be festive occasion, though lots of customers paid less – much less – than full price. Novelty, even timid, artificially sweetened novelty, still frightens the regular patrons. [...] The result, alas, resembles a mishmash of pretentious technobabble and melodramatic piffle. The score, though neatly constructed, concentrates for the most part on vocal chatter and terse arioso, punctuated by portentous rumbling and percussive bleating.
Heidi Waleson, The Tangled Web He Weaves (Wall Street Journal, October 22)
It was all clean and engaging, but it may not bridge the opera-house generational divide. A puzzled elderly woman asked me afterward, “Why did he kill him?” And a representative of the target Millennial generation felt it was an old person’s view of the Internet, commenting, “As someone who spends a lot of time on the Internet, I’m a little offended.”
Anne Midgette, Muhly’s “Two Boys” hits Met, misses connection (Washington Post, October 22)
If great opera could be produced from a recipe, this one would have been a masterpiece. But all these components did not combine into something with a real, beating heart -- or even any characters you cared about. One problem with trying to write something hip and up-to-date for the opera stage is that opera takes so long to develop that your contemporary story has become a thing of history by the time the opera sees light. [...] Of course, there are plenty of operas about the past that don’t feel dated -- because their characters come to life. But this is more than “Two Boys” could pull off. One could sympathize with Brian (Paul Appleby), the 16-year-old who gets caught up with what appears to be a life-or-death, increasingly convoluted on-line melodrama; but the figure remained somewhat generic. As for Anne Strawson, the detective (Alice Coote), I believe the creators may genuinely have thought that they were creating a poignant portrait of a lonely and confused woman, but what they gave us, despite Coote’s spectacular singing, was a bad, badly dated, and profoundly unlikable stereotype.
Lawrence A. Johnson, Muhly’s dark, haunting “Two Boys” offers a chilling parable for the internet age (New York Classical Review, October 22)
With a visually stunning production, raw yet eloquent libretto by Craig Lucas and a compelling score by Nico Muhly, Monday’s opening-night performance proved a triumph almost across the board. The first fruit of the Met’s New Works Program in concert with the Lincoln Center Theater, Two Boys bodes well for future efforts by this important new partnership.
Manuela Hoelterhoff, Muhly’s Internet Creep Gets Stabbed in Met Opera Premiere (Bloomberg News, October 22)
Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys” -- about the dawn of the Internet and its squinting sociopaths -- finally opened on Monday night at the Metropolitan Opera. Now we can stop writing stories about Muhly, and you can stop reading them.
Justin Davidson, The Half-Fulfilled Promise of Nico Muhly’s Two Boys (New York Magazine, October 22)
If you could build a whole opera out of such ravishing set pieces, Two Boys would be a masterwork. Instead, it’s an assemblage of ill-fitting components, many of them very fine, others promising but neutralized by context. Muhly, a phenomenally talented 32-year-old composer, and Lucas, a veteran playwright, backed by the full faith and credit of the Metropolitan Opera, have produced a police procedural with an Internet angle and a lurid dénouement. That all sounded great ahead of the Met’s premiere (the world premiere took place two years ago at the English National Opera). But in practice, the premise never quite jells into a plot, and whenever Muhly ventures into opera’s more extreme emotional territory — anguish, menace, pain, terror, violence — he turns back before he’s gone very far. In the score, the characters come out as small and distant as avatars in a primitive video game.
David Patrick Stearns, Hypnotic and Frank, Muhly's Two Boys Gets U.S. Premiere at the Met (Operavore, October 22)
The secret lives of teenagers are often fraught with matters that loom as large as life and death. But at the Metropolitan Opera's U.S. premiere of Two Boys on Monday, numerous lines were crossed in this tale about jail-bait seduction, layer upon layer of deception and, ultimately, mercy killing. You wouldn't think it would go over well at the Met. Instead, Two Boys was an audience sensation. Even if you don't trust first-night ovations, the audience seemed genuinely entranced with the opera's intentionally creepy sexual frankness that no doubt went beyond anything previously seen on that stage.
James Jorden, ‘Two Boys’ brings cyberspace to the Met (New York Post, October 22)
As Brian recounts a series of disturbing encounters in Internet chat rooms, the stage fills with a drably dressed chorus, faces eerily lit by laptop screens. They sing tinkling fragments of melody, a seductive hymn suggesting infinite possibilities of online connections. Less effective are Muhly’s accompaniments for the creaky plot twists of Craig Lucas’ libretto. The detective’s scenes droned on and on in an aimless medium tempo, redeemed only by Alice Coote’s flinty mezzo.
SEE ALSO:
Zachary Woolfe, ‘Two Boys’ and One Composer (New York Times, October 16)

William Robin, Nico Muhly's Team Spirit (The New Yorker, October 20)

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